The Abyss of Godhead and the Self-Reflexive Being of Language

However, there is also something else implicit in this passage presenting the divine Trinity that is crucial for a deeper apprehension and appreciation of the self-reflexive dynamic of language in Dante’s Paradiso. The internal self-reflexivity of God consists not just in the reflective mirroring and communication of positive traits or perfections of his Being such as unity or goodness or beauty or simplicity. Self-reflexivity entails not just a duplication of and return to the Same but also a relating to an Other within the Godhead. This is already inherent implicitly in the fact that the Son is another person and, as such, “hypostatically” distinct from the Father. This fact opens up an internal gap or articulation within the bosom of the Trinity. All unity and concord between them notwithstanding, the distinction between the persons of the Trinity is insuperable. Still more insuperable, however, than any representations of their differences is the difference between representations and the unrepresentable.

God’s being cannot be grasped directly as the perfect oneness and simplicity of Godhead but only through recognition of God’s absolute difference from anything that can be representated. The positive perfections of divinity such as being, goodness, oneness, beauty, and truth (the “transcendentals”) recede from apparent intelligibility to the status of unrepresentable mysteries. From this point on, it is most profoundly the abyss of the Father that is reflected in the Son. In some sense, at the deepest level, what the Son reveals of God is just this abyss of the Godhead. This is pushed in certain Christian (radical Protestant and especially Gnostic) theologies to the limit of insisting that the Father is revealed only in the Son. From this perspective, without the Son, God would not be revealed as Father, or perhaps even at all: “He” would remain unknowable in his sheer transcendence of everything finite and worldly.

Only in his self-reflection (in the Son or the Creation) does the original Being of God (symbolized as the Father) becomes manifest. What God’s Being is before or apart from the act of self-reflection that engenders the Son remains an unrelatable mystery—without face or name. The phrase that Dante uses for the Father as the source or root of Godhead is “ineffabile valore”—an ineffable value or even “valence”—or, in other words, a kind of empty placeholder for whatever we must value most highly. The abyss of Godhead that is manifest only through self-reflection forces Dante to resort to a poetics of ineffability. Metaphors aside, there is no language for God but, instead, the failure of language to attain finally to the infinitely other. Through this very failure, Dante endeavors to apprehend—or rather to indicate or hint at—divinity. Accordingly, Godhead cannot be apprehended directly in itself, but only analogically— as reflected in the self-reflections of the universe and of language itself. That the universe itself is created ex nihilo perfectly mirrors this Nothing which is all that we can discern of the divine nature at the origin of the Godhead.

Modeled on this Trinitarian theological paradigm, the paradox of self-reflection is that the self becomes an identifiable self, a positively perceived and thinkable being, only in and through such reflection. Reflection is absolutely necessary for it to be manifest at all. There is no self to speak of before such self-reflection: there is only what cannot be apprehended except as an empty abyss. The apprehension of a substantial self thus arises from reflection rather than preceding it as its condition. Like the Trinity, the self is through and through relational. Self-reflection, accordingly, rather than being simple, straightforward self-iteration of something positively given, exposes the lack of a freestanding, positive, substantial presence of the self simply in and for itself. Filling this emptiness is nothing but the faith that what in itself can be apprehended only as Nothing is nevertheless the source of all being and experience. This is so whether this Nothing is taken as standing for the inner essence of subjectivity or as the abyss of divinity. In either case, only self-projection through a kind of “faith” makes self-reflection a revelation rather than just a show of empty Nothing, an exposure of vanity.

After the fall of language and its dispersion into multiplicity at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), this self-reflexive structure of language is no longer always or automatically a revelation or an index of divine origins. In a fallen world, in which we see “through a glass darkly,” self-reflexive language can even become a vice—the vice of mere empty rhetoric that shows itself off at the expense of any more substantial content. It is, in other words, a condition of linguistic narcissism.

Nonetheless, this structure of self-reflexiveness is indispensable to the wholeness and perfection of language. Self-reflexiveness is the structure through which language mirrors the very being of God as Trinitarian selfrelation and so instantiates truth and reflects and imitates Being as such. Without this relation of self-reflexivity, language is reduced from its vocation of revealing Being to merely serving human beings as a tool for their communications and for representing their thoughts and intentions. It no longer serves for reflecting the divine Essence. Only through its intrinsic self-reflexive dynamic is language able to surpass the human manipulation of linguistic signs for merely human purposes.

Dante’s poetic, and particularly his lyrical, language constitutes a concentrated effort to restore language to its original state of perfect selfreflexivity. His language in the Paradiso aspires to become the image or imitation of a free and autonomous, self-contemplating, self-engendering, self-loving God. To become this, it must emulate the divine Word—the perfect self-reflection of the Father. This perfect self-reflexivity proclaims a miraculous revelation of divine Being. At the same time, however, the self-reflection that is a reflection of divine transcendence is also a reference to what cannot be apprehended or described. Self-reflexivity in this form is a mode of relating to an ungraspable (un)Ground (ungrunt,

The Self-Reflexive Trinitarian Structure 41 as Jakob Bbhme would later baptize it) that withdraws from language and knowledge. In self-reflection, so understood, the “self” is radically transcended. This can be seen best with relation to the language of lyric. Its self-reflexive intensity is produced by purely formal play with language itself. It is produced and suspended from Nothing—at least from no independently ascertainable object outside itself. Yet precisely this self-reflexive dynamic, hinging from Nothing, proves to be highly, indeed infinitely, productive of the phenomena of the Creation and of language alike. The Void, as we shall see, can be fathomed only through selfreflection. And self-reflection achieves completion only by recognizing itself as pivoting from what, for representation, is a Void.

At stake in reflection into the Void is the freeing of form from delimitation by determinate content. That form has, or is, its own kind of content—one that can be reflected into itself—becomes paramount at certain junctures and moments of crisis in cultural history—notably with Hegel.[1] But it becomes visible already in Dante’s time with Duns Scotus and his taking up of Avicenna’s teaching concerning essences (essentia) as having a certain formal independence of the real existence (esse) of beings. It is pursued in our own day by reflection along the lines of hermeneutical theory speculating on the kind of content that is intrinsic to form as such. We will examine (and the Epilogue will illustrate) how the autonomous life of form becomes a crucial axis of Dante’s lyric experience of Paradise.

  • [1] Catherine Malabou brings out this immanent dynamic of speculative reflexivity in L’avenir de Hegel: Plasticité, temporalité, dialectique (Paris: Vrin, 1996), trans. Lisabeth During as The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (London: Routledge, 2005). 2 See Part II, sections 20-34. 3 Hadyn White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).
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